Monthly Archives: December 2009

Crystal Ball

Standing in line for the ladies room at Longwood Gardens, I see what I will be in a decade or two. Or four. And the thing is, I don’t mind. Well, I mind standing in line for the restroom, but I am not bothered by this glimpse into my future. Women wearing chunky yet high end sweaters with large buttons, necklaces mixing uncut stones with gems. Short hair–even shorter than mine now–with or without a hat. I can live with that.  At least I didn’t see myself in thirty years at bingo at the rod and gun club.  Now THAT would be scary!

Two Thousand Words on Day Two

Me in a cute little nook in the garden of the National Cathedral

Outside the National Cathedral

Inside the National Cathedral

Day two dawned bright and early, as I’d set an alarm to make the most of our short trip.  Our first goal was the National Cathedral, and I had originally planned to take a tour bus to the Cathedral, and then use the $30, good-for-two-day tickets to get us around the city for the rest of the weekend.  But we decided this would be silly, as most things–other than the Cathedral–were walkable or metro-able, and knowing myself, I imagined being annoyed at having to wait for a tour bus to get to the next stop on my schedule.  So instead we opted to spend the money on a taxi for the Cathedral and get around on our own for the rest of the weekend.  Travel tip–that was a good idea.  We ended up using cabs more often than we thought, but we still didn’t come anywhere near to spending the $60 plus tax we would have spent on the tour bus, and the tour busses stop running at 5pm.  I was a bit concerned about getting back from the Cathedral, as it is in a very residential part of town, but this proved to be not even a little bit of a problem.  The Cathedral itself was, hands-down, the highlight of our trip.  I’ve never seen an actual cathedral before–I’ve never been to Europe–and ever since I read The Pillars of the Earth I’ve been quite fascinated with them, though that fascination was restricted to google image searches.  The National Cathedral was maybe ten times bigger than I had imagined–I was literally awesome; it inspired awe.  I was filled with awe.  Awe was everywhere.  We spent a good half hour outside, maybe more.  The gardens were beautiful, and this was at the end of November; I will go back in nicer weather.  After taking about fifty outside pictures, we went inside to take fifty more.  The light was amazing.  The height was amazing.  The intricacy was amazing.  It was amazing.  On top of the sheer beauty of the the place, the guided tour we went on–guided tour two of I don’t know how many throughout the weekend–was the most interesting and the most well done.  The docent was extremely intelligent, kind, and funny.  I highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting the capitol.  And the second best part–second only to the actual experience of the Cathedral itself–we walked out to Massachusetts Avenue fifty yards from the front door of the Cathedral, my husband put his arm out, and a cab magically appeared!  So much for not being able to get back to the Mall.

We asked the cab driver to take us to the Capitol, and he dropped us as close as you can get to the entrance to the visitor’s center without breaking federal laws–any closer and he would have been parking on the Capitol lawn.  We waited in what at first seemed to be a very long line, but moved rather quickly–and thank goodness, because it seemed a screaming baby was following us around the whole weekend; I think the line for the Capitol is where where that all started.  We went into the somewhat underwhelming visitor’s center–though we both appreciated the plethora of restrooms–and went to the ticketing desk.  I’d spent about twenty minutes filling out a tiny form on my iPhone the night before, reserving timed tickets for us which, it turned out, was all together unnecessary, as we were about forty minutes early for our reserved time and the very nice ticket officer gave us tickets for the next tour, starting that very second, so we didn’t have to wait.  We then got to stand in line again–but this was just to wait for the tour to begin, and again passed quickly; as soon as they opened the doors to the orientation theatre we all filed in and the 13 minute movie began.  The theatre had stadium seating–sit up as far as you can, as everyone exits not through the doors you entered from at the bottom, but through doors at the top.  The whole process was quite efficient, and after the movie–it seems all tours in DC start with a short film, this one of great interest, as it made congressmen out to be some kind of hero, which my husband thought was VERY funny–we were led off into the Capitol itself.

The line for the Capitol Visitor's Center

The Capitol Rotunda

The tour actually began in one of those long, roped off lines–the kind that you expect to end in the It’s A Small World ride.  But the efficiency continued, as one tour guide took one row each off in a different direction to begin the tour.  We got to see the Capitol rotunda, of Dan Brown nouveau-fame, the old Senate Chambers, and ‘the crypt’, which is simply a columned room that lies below the rotunda.  There was one guy on the tour with us–or should I say one OTHER guy–who was clearly there because he’d read The Lost Symbol, and he continued to ask the tour guide very obviously from-the-novel questions about the Capitol’s ‘secrets’.  I could tell the guide was getting tired of saying the same thing over and over again–some variation of ‘no, sir, that’s simply not true’–but it was very funny.  It was like the ‘Why Dan Brown is Wrong Tour of the Capitol’.  At the end we returned to where we started, checked out the tackiest gift shop in all of Washington (no, thank you, I would not like a Michelle Obama brass Christmas tree ornament), and made our way back out into a beautiful November afternoon.

Me and the Capitol Dome

We walked around the south side of the Capitol, pausing near the steps to take a picture; my husband mused that when he’d been there last–ages and ages ago on a class trip–you could walk right up the steps, there was that little security.  This time the entire building was ‘guarded’ by a waist high movable metal fence.  I don’t really see the point in this, or how it makes anything more secure, but we posed there to take each other’s picture anyway.  At least it gave us something to lean upon.  As we approached the Botanic Gardens we noticed a very long line, and sighed–surely they wouldn’t make us go through security to look at plants.  Fortunately we discovered that the long line was for some sort of Christmas Train Kid’s event–we entered without a problem through the actual main doors.  Now, perhaps I’m prejudiced because we visited Longwood Gardens this past summer, but the National Botanic Gardens were a huge disappointment.  The one good picture I took is posted here; I imagine that had we visited in the spring or summer, at least the outside would have been something to see.  The inside, however, was insanely crowded and even more than that, extremely underwhelming.  To stand in what amounted to a line that formed around the entire arboretum just to look at a very large aloe plant and cross a tree trunk bridge–no thanks.  We stayed for about twenty minutes and then narrowly escaped before being crushed to death by people trying to get past other people trying to take photos of orchids.  We will not be going back.

Looking down from the second story catwalk at the National Botanic Gardens. Eh..

On the heels of this disappointment came a bit of a treat, in the form of the cafeteria at the American Indian Museum.  That’s right, I said cafeteria.  We read in our guide book that Mitsam–the name of the cafeteria–was your best bet for museum dining, and the guide

My lunch at Mitsam. Yes, they serve beer. Yes, Doug had one.

book did not steer us wrong.  It was, of course, set up cafeteria style, with different stations for different types of native cuisine, and every geographic area in the Americas was represented.  You could have salmon dishes at the Pacific Northwest station, buffalo bbq at the plains indians area, rabbit and quail in the Northeast, yucca and quinoa in the South American section…the list literally goes on and on.  I became overwhelmed–which was in no small part due to the fact that it was nearing 3:00 and I’d only had a bland scone all day, and even that was at eight in the morning–and eventually picked the line for South American food, as it seemed the most exotic.  This presented an additional challenge, as I then had to pick something.  Starving tourist tip–when in doubt, find someone who knows what they are doing and copy them.  Which is what I did–I pointed to the woman’s plate in front of me, that had been expertly ordered might I add, and said ‘I’ll have whatever she’s having’.  The man smiled at me and made up the plate of food pictured.  It was very, very good, and not just because I was starving.

We planned to simply visit the museum for lunch, but we figured that while we were there we’d check it out.  It is the newest of the Smithsonian museums (ironic, as it deals with the oldest aspect of our nation–only in America would we have a museum devoted to the flag and a fictional character’s fictional ruby slippers before a museum devoted to that nation’s first people) and even from outside it was visually appealing–a very organic looking structure standing in stark contrast with the roman columns of almost every other building in the area (and the angular glass and brick structure of the Air and Space Museum next door).  So we checked it out, and were glad that we did.  The upstairs contained a history of the different peoples as told through their different views of the

The exterior of the American Indian Museum

universe–it was extremely well put together, and very informative.  Looking at the similarities and differences–there were many of both–between the different tribes was extremely thought provoking.  One floor down we visited a modern art exhibit from a Native artist who makes art out of sports equipment.  It sounds odd, but it was actually really neat–my husband LOVED it.  Back down on the first floor, there were native dancers and a large sand mandala being made.  All in all we were glad we went, and not just for the great food.

At this point we were understandably exhausted, yet we made one last stop at the Museum of Natural History.  It was open late–until 7:30–for the holiday weekend, so we stopped in at five o’ clock simply because it was on our list of things to see.  It used to be one of my favorites, back in the day when I spent my lunch breaks on the Mall, second only to the National Gallery.  But the thing about Natural History is this–it never changes.  Thus, everything was exactly the same as it had been over ten years ago when I’d been there last.  Plus it was crawling with screaming children–we checked out the mammals room, the dinosaurs, and the oceans exhibit and got the hell out of there.  I still do love the sculpture garden, and seeing it at dusk was lovely.

We walked home–I think by that point my theory was ‘how much more could my feet really hurt’–plus we wanted to pick up a bottle of wine.  Thanks to a marvelous iPhone app called ManGo, we located a liquor store only a half of a block out of the way, which also resulted in locating a bar on that same corner–yes, we stopped at a bar AFTER stopping to pick up wine–and I had THE BEST SANGRIA EVER.  The place is called McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood and is located at 9th and F St. NW.  I found–only after googling it to give it a review–that this is actually a chain of related restaurants, all having something to do with seafood or steaks.  I can’t speak to the quality of the food, but the sangria was to die for.  It started with freshly squeezed–as in right there in front of me–orange juice, and it only got better from there.  Had we passed it walking again that weekend, I would have had to stop for another.

Doug and I sharing some sort of Salmon/Phyllo/Feta dish. Mmmm.

We returned to the hotel only slightly buzzed from said sangria and got ready for dinner at Zaytinya, which was thankfully only about a block and a half from our hotel.  Zaytinya specializes in middle eastern small plates, or mezze.  We ordered several to share; we had goat cheese wrapped around sun dried tomatoes, rolled in black pepper and wrapped in grape leaves, a trio of spreads with warm pita bread that continued to arrive fresh at our table, and a selection of meat and seafood dishes that I can’t remember–aside from the veal cheeks in some sort of puree that I loved.  I know there were scallops, and my husband had short ribs…and I had two drinks that were considered a house specialty that I cannot name, but I remember that A.  they involved pomegranate and B. thinking ‘damn this is strong’, so that could have something to do with my not remembering the rest.  The meal was very good–the drinks were even better, and we stumbled up the street and back to the hotel for the evening.

Ordered Crème brûlée, got Cheesecake

The dome of the Library of Congress Reading Room--Looking out from behind Moses

We made it to the metro in record time—only two and a half hours from Reading, with two coffee-induced rest stops along the way.  We stopped first a the Greenbelt station, as it was the closest to 95 and on the right metro line; we continued on our way to New Carrollton after finding the seven ‘designated overnight’ spots filled; the parking lot attendant agreed with our decision to move on, so move on we did, even though this necessitated a running-through-the-station-with-a-suitcase transfer at L’Enfant Plaza.  After finally arriving at the Chinatown stop, we ascended the escalator into the sunlight and…rain.  Rain?  Rain.  It was pouring.  No, the word ‘pouring’ would imply rain falling down.  This was blowing sideways.  We trudged through this wind and rain, two and a half long blocks to the hotel, which we would not even have found if not for the (blessed) rain; you see, the hotel was covered in plastic.

The Renaissance Marriott DC was cloaked in black plastic.  I suppose we got a really good deal on a four star hotel, but what we stayed in was a two star hotel at best.  So many things were wrong with this hotel, and I could have overlooked all but one.  First, when we arrived, the key card machine was ‘down’.  We had to be escorted to our room by a very nice man, and though he was very nice, the idea of leaving again–which  was our plan–with no idea how to get back into the room without a key was a bit unsettling.  Fortunately, as we exited the lobby on the way to lunch we were informed that the machine was back up, and were handed keys.  It was too bad this was after we checked into our 15th floor room ‘with city views’–according to the receptionist–that actually looked out on hundreds of other windows that all overlooked the roof of the lobby.  We could not open the curtains the entire time we were there, lest every single other person staying at the hotel see our every move; my husband checked, and no one else opened their curtains, either.  This gave the room the feel of the inside cabin on a ship.  It was not pleasant.  But I didn’t even get to the most unpleasant thing, nor did I talk about how my husband ordered me creme brulee in the hotel bar/restaurant, only to  have them serve me what can only be described as cheesecake (ok, it can’t ‘only be described as cheesecake’, it WAS cheesecake).  The most unpleasant thing was the sewer line break during our first afternoon in town, which rendered the lobby un-walk-through-able, and made us very, very happy that we were staying on the 15th floor.  The smell was unbearable, and we were quite worried that we’d be left without working plumbing, which is not ok, even in a one-star hotel.  Needless to say, we will not be staying there again.

Chinatown

Our first short trip was to find food, and there was no lack of food to be found in nearby Chinatown.  We ended up having some appetizers at a nearby Irish pub right out side the big, brightly colored gate all Chinatowns must have by law, or at least that’s how it seems.  We then ventured into town to begin the official Tourism Fest.

Library of Congress

Transferring trains is annoying, as it involves lots of jogging through crowds at multi-level metro stations, but we eventually found our way to Capitol South, which is a short block away from the Library of Congress.  Yet from that block away you could clearly see the line forming out front–I assumed correctly that it was the first of many security lines we’d stand in that weekend.  Visiting anything worth visiting in DC requires a procedure step-for-step identical to that of boarding an airplane.  We arrived at around 3:00 in the ‘afternoon’, which was perfect, as the sun was just beginning to dip down far enough to illuminate the inside of the building through the many intricate windows and skylights.  We joined the last tour of the day, which turned out to be quite a large tour; we found out later that the day after Thanksgiving, for whatever reason, was the busiest day for the Library of Congress.  I found this odd, as I would have thought that everything in or around the Mall–with a capital m–would be empty, as everyone would be at the lower-case-m mall.  I was a bit annoyed by our tour guide, as she was very clearly stalling in order to allow the other groups to get through the different areas of the building first.  We sat in a very lovely room in the depths of the building listening to her prattle on about the history of the building, right down to how it was funded and Thomas Jefferson’s love of the French.  And don’t get me wrong–I did want to know the history of the library, I simply would have preferred to hear it while TOURING the actual building.  There were several points in the ‘tour’–the sitting in a chair part–that I very nearly stood up and screamed ‘can we PLEASE just get on with it?’ But I didn’t.  The actual tour was nice–once we were actually on our way.  It was generally a good trip, and I’m glad we went, though I wish I’d known about the tunnel–there is a tunnel between the LOC and the Capitol Visitor’s center.  Had we the time, we could have taken this tunnel and thus avoided having to stand in a security line twice–once on Friday for the Library, and again on Saturday for the visitor’s center.  This is a good tip that should be included in every guide book.

Inside the Library of Congress

We stayed at the LOC (as I can now call it, now that we’ve ‘gotten to know each other) until almost 6:00; as tours that had already started were allowed to finish even after the doors closed.  We made it into the gift shop just before they shut the doors behind us, and scored our only souvenirs of the entire trip–a set of Library of Congress stained glass skylight coasters for me (yes, you read that correctly) and a very nerdy Library of Congress mug for my husband, which he planned to sip from whilst reading the NY Times and feeling generally superior.

Doug at Fogo De Chao

We took the metro back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.  It was very cold out, so we decided to take a cab to dinner.  Doug’s only request for the entire trip was that we visit a restaurant he’d wanted to experience the last time we were in town–a pseudo-chain restaurant called Fogo De Chao.  There’s one in maybe six or eight other major cities, and we had passed one in Philadelphia the weekend before with a considerable line out front in the cold, waiting for a table.  But with the help of Open Table.com, we walked right in and were guided to ours.  Fogo is a Brazillian steakhouse, and I don’t know if these types of places actually exist in Brazil, but if they do, I cannot imagine the collective cholesterol of the Brazillian people.  We were instructed to take our time exploring the ‘salad bar’–which contained not only salad, but countless types of cheese including a giant wheel of parmesan the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on Iron Chef, cured meats, and marinated vegetables.  I could have made a meal out of this ‘salad bar’ alone.  But as soon as we were done–correction, as soon as I was done, as Doug didn’t spend too much time with the veggies–we were to flip our little coaster-like discs to green, and commence with The Eating of the Meat.  Once your little card is flipped, men with grilled meat on sticks–all kinds of grilled meat on sticks–showed up at the table and sliced pieces off onto your plate.  I think there was maybe a three second delay between the flipping of the cards and the arrival of the first man.  And you had to turn the card back over if you wanted to even begin to eat any of it, as waiter after waiter would show up with meat after meat after meat.  I started with a lamb chop, which was possibly my favorite, though everything was fantastic.  I also had pork ribs, sirloin, fillet, and fillet wrapped in bacon.  I turned down several other items, at which point I was specifically asked what I’d like more of (ribs for me, fillet for Doug, and of course I took some additional fillet just for good measure).  Side dishes arrived, and while my husband ignored them, I sampled all of them and found them to be just as good as the main course–fantastic garlicky mashed potatoes with cheese on top, caramelized bananas that even my husband eventually gave in to, and these little rolls that could only be described as heaven on earth–they were like a small, savory, cheddar doughnut.  Only better.  There was one other side, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was, only that I think my husband and I fought over it.  I think the excessive amounts of meat may have caused some memory loss, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it was a really good time; my husband was happy, no one was rushing us, and the food was great.  I honestly didn’t expect to like this restaurant–not even a little, but it really was one of the best meals I’ve had.  And thus ended day one.

It was a good day.